See the picture in black and white? That’s Molly Holt, Harry and Bertha Holt’s daughter, in 1959, placing a baby in her adoptive mother’s arms after a long journey from Korea to the United States. When Holt International started in 1956, Korean children were exclusively brought home to their adoptive families via charter flights, and in the years that followed, staff escorting a child from their birth country to their adoptive family in the United States was considered the norm.
But in the last two decades, escort trips have slowly phased out in favor of adoptive families traveling to their child’s birth country. In fact, travel is required in every one of the 11 countries where Holt has adoption programs.
“It’s really been an evolution,” Susie Doig, Holt International’s director of adoption services, says of the shift from escort trips to family travel. “As our understanding of international adoption has changed, so have our methods.” Susie says that, in general, it is much easier for adoptive parents to adjust to the stresses that come with adoption than it is for a child — a child who is not only having to adapt to new people in his or her life, but also a new environment. “The parents have prepared for the adoption,” Susie says. “And they are generally better equipped to make the adjustments that come with travel.”
Traveling to your child’s country of birth, instead of having your child escorted home, gives children the opportunity to meet their adoptive family in an environment that they are familiar with. It helps give adoptive parents empathy for what their child might experience when entering into a completely new world, and an understanding, however brief, about what it’s going to be like to live in another country. “It gives adoptive parents the chance to experience their child’s country of birth, get to know the customs and culture, and, in turn, help their child acclimate to the United States,” Susie explains.
Many countries now require not one, but two trips to their child’s birth country for court appearances and official paperwork. “But it’s more than that,” Susie says. “Travel is more than the legal issues and the paperwork signing. It’s really more about experiencing where your child has come from, and being able to be at their level, in their environment. That’s what’s important.”
Below, adoptive parent Aimee Whitescarver shares about traveling to Korea and meeting with her daughter’s foster mother. “I cherish those times,” Aimee says. “Not only for the moments that we had with our daughter, but also for the time we had with her foster parents, the ones who witnessed her first steps, taught her her first words, and loved her as their own for the first 19 months of her life.”
An adoptive family shares the immeasurable benefits of traveling to their child’s birth country.
Adoption runs throughout my family’s history. However, it wasn’t until October 2009 when we traveled to Seoul, South Korea, with my husband’s father — who is a Korean adoptee —that adoption became an intimate part of our lives. During this special trip to meet his 81-year-old birth mother, God began tugging at our hearts, and thus began our own journey to adopt from South Korea. Just a couple years later, my husband and I began the adoption process, and in 2014 we brought home our energetic, fun-loving son Briton. Then, in September of this year, we arrived home with our sweet little spitfire, Elinor.
Over the years, I have heard my father-in-law tell the story many times of his journey to the United States and his first meeting with his parents. He was 2 years old, and was escorted over with 88 other South Korean children who were all being adopted by American families. When he got off the airplane to meet his parents, he only had one shoe. During the flight, all the children had taken their shoes off and put them in a pile. When it was time to land, he could only find one shoe. We all smile when he tells this story, and sometimes someone in the family will joke that he should have been quicker. But my heart always aches a little for that 2-year-old boy who must have been scared and confused. The adoption process has evolved over the years since my father-in-law was adopted and, thankfully, our first meeting with both our son and daughter looked vastly different than that November day 60 years ago when my father-in-law first met his parents.
My husband, my son and I traveled to South Korea this July to meet Elinor for the very first time. The meeting room at Holt was filled with anticipation as we and three other families eagerly waited for our children to arrive. When Elinor’s foster mom and dad carried her in, Elinor flashed us a shy smile. For 10 months, we had sent over care packages with pictures of our family for Elinor’s foster family to share with her, and in that moment we were rewarded with a spark of recognition when she saw us. She was especially drawn to her oppa (big brother) and would toddle after him, wanting to touch his face and give him toys.
For the following hour, we played peek-a-boo, threw balls and blew bubbles, and crawled in and out of tents and up and down stairs. And when Elinor needed reassurance or comfort, she ran back to her foster mom or dad, bringing them along with her. One of my favorite photos from this first meeting is one where I am sitting next to Elinor, rubbing her arm, and her foster mom is lovingly brushing the hair out of Elinor’s face. There we were: two mommas, loving on the daughter that we share, but who neither gave birth to, wanting to take care of her every need. It is moments like these that exemplify the beauty of the evolution of the adoption process.
During that week in Korea, we had two more visits with Elinor and her foster family. I cherish those times, not only for the moments that we had with our daughter, but also for the time we had with her foster parents, the ones who witnessed her first steps,
taught her her first words, and loved her as their own for the first 19 months of her life. Through these visits, we were able to find out Elinor’s typical daily routine, her eating habits, her favorite activities, her likes and dislikes and so much more, in order to make the transition from their family to ours as smooth as possible for her.
Six weeks after that first meeting with Elinor, we traveled back to Korea to bring her home, and as hard as those first few days after custody were, we know that our visits in July helped prepare us and Elinor for the difficult days and weeks ahead. Today, we are happy to say that Elinor’s days are filled with more trust than fear, more joy than grief, and more smiles than tears.
Knowing my father-in-law’s story of first arriving in the United States, I consider it a privilege to have been able to make the journey home with both our son and our daughter. Being able to comfort them and love on them during the long flights home, and hold them close and reassure them once we arrived home, is one of the biggest blessings of our adoption journey.
Aimee Whitescarver | Everton, Arkansas